posted 29 Feb 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 6
The Knowledge: Tom Davenport
What do knowledge management (KM), business process reengineering, information ecology, knowledge worker productivity, attention management and analytical competition have in common? They’ve all been recent management innovations; they take place at the intersection of people, information and knowledge and technology; and they are all the subject of pioneering work by Tom Davenport.
These and other big ideas would all be significantly less understood without the work of
He was trained as an academic sociologist, but shortly after receiving his PhD he decided he didn’t want to sit in his office and write papers for a few other sociologists to read. So he began to work with consulting firms as a researcher and consultant, and since then has swung back and forth between ‘thought leadership’ roles for big consultants like Accenture, Ernst & Young, and McKinsey and business schools such as Harvard, the University of Texas, and now Babson College.
At Babson he’s the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management. Few have crossed the line between theory and practice so easily and often.
The two authors began to collaborate on research and publication in the early 1990s, when they were both based at Ernst & Young’s Centre for Business Innovation. There they started in 1992 what they believe was the first sponsored research programme on KM (and they still run one today at Babson, with over 25 sponsors).
By 1998 they had published one of the first – and best-selling – books on KM, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know. Some have described this as the bible of the field, and it’s still largely current despite being more than a decade old.
The use of knowledge management in service processes;
The management of customer knowledge;
Managing information and knowledge about business processes;
The relationship between social networks and knowledge;
In-depth discussions of how knowledge management was implemented in particular companies (Siemens and Accenture);
Just in time knowledge management in health care;
Knowledge and intellectual asset re-use.
Bibliometric analyses reveal that
“We wouldn’t be talking about knowledge management without tools like portals, Lotus Notes and SharePoint,” he says. But he’s the first to point out that knowledge initiatives won’t succeed without behavioural and cultural change. “No doubt technology is the easy part,” he admits.
“I know there were excesses committed under the name of reengineering, but I never saw the movement as incompatible with KM. I always argued that knowledge should be embedded in key business processes.”
Not many organisations have accomplished this integration, but
“It’s very powerful when companies pull this off, even though it takes a lot of work,” says
The combination of a knowledge and process orientation led
He argues that knowledge management should be defined broadly if it’s to succeed over the long run. He feels a traditional focus on disseminating unstructured content is not broad enough for KM organisations to thrive. He believes they should also address knowledge work processes, knowledge derived from data (ie. business intelligence and analytics), knowledge transfer and acquisition (also known as learning), and knowledge creation (also known as R&D or innovation).
With colleagues Prusak and Bruce Strong,
However, they also feel that a KM orientation that incorporates knowledge creation, dissemination, and transfer may be too ambitious for one organisational function to master alone. They point out KM people should work closely with innovation groups on knowledge creation and with IT on knowledge dissemination. Since users of knowledge don’t want to go to a separate set of systems to find it, they feel knowledge should be combined with data and information in an integrated approach to content management.
For knowledge transfer and acquisition, the obvious internal partner for KM groups is the learning and training function, which is most frequently found in the Human Resources department.
But these are relatively small projects. What’s he thinking about that’s bigger? Davenport has a ready answer. “Decisions,” he says. What about them in particular? “I am convinced that companies need to begin systematically examining how they make decisions.There are all these new tools and approaches that organisations have to improve decision-making – KM, analytics, automated rules, ‘wisdom of crowds’, even intuition on occasion. But we don’t know whether all this knowledge and analysis is really being used to help make decisions. We’ve taken a totally supply-side approach to informing decisions, and now we need to address the demand side.”
That is a big and important topic. But